UK meat industry cuts production as Brexit labour shortages bite

Labour shortages are causing the UK meat industry to cut production and warn that it will soon be unable to meet orders unless the government relaxes post-Brexit immigration rules. 

The British Poultry Council (BPC) said throughput in the industry — which usually processes some 20m birds each week — had fallen by 10 per cent since Easter, because of the shortages of workers across farming and processing. 

Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), a trade body which represents companies in the beef, pork and lamb industry, said the sector was “heading towards a brick wall” as a result of labour shortages. Processors were “between 10 and 11 per cent” short of full capacity, and many were now being forced to prioritise some products and increase overtime payments to meet demand.

“One or two have said to me that they are only one or two weeks away from failing to deliver to retail customers and saying to farmers that they can no longer take animals off the farm,” he said. 

The warnings follow similar reports of labour shortages in hospitality, trucking and construction — sectors that have relied on a flow of EU migrants to fill jobs that are unpopular with UK workers because they do not pay well enough to make up for tough working conditions. 

The shortages are starting to bite sooner than expected because the pandemic prompted many EU nationals to return home and they cannot easily be replaced by other migrant workers, as most of the jobs fall below the skill and salary levels needed to qualify for a visa under the new regime.

“We hit the wall in terms of labour at Easter,” said James Hook, managing director of PD Hook Hatcheries, which supplies half the chicks and a third of the chickens sold in the UK. His farms had around 80 posts vacant at present, double the usual level, but the “pinch point” was in factories where shortages were more acute. He has cut production by around 10 per cent because “there aren’t enough people to take what we can give them”. 

Allen said a national shortage of truck drivers had put further strains on supply chains, which transport animals from farms to abattoirs, processors, packers and on to supermarkets in a constant cycle.

The BMPA has lobbied the government to put butchers on its list of shortage occupations, to allow recruitment from overseas at a lower salary and skill level. The BPC has made similar demands and also argues the sector should be allowed to recruit seasonal workers under a scheme currently open only to horticulture. 

“We need [seasonal] staff to collect eggs and pluck turkeys,” said Paul Kelly, chief executive of Kelly Turkeys, who usually employs around 50 staff from Poland for the spring hatching season, and almost double that number in the run-up to Christmas. 

Most returned regularly and still could for now, because they had settled status, Kelly said, but he expected labour shortages to bite over time. Because of this, and problems with customs procedures, he was considering moving a third of his breeding stock to the EU. 

Hook said many farms and factories had stepped up automation in preparation for the changes to immigration, and would need to invest more in machinery, as well as raising wages to attract UK-born workers. But the industry would “absolutely, definitely” need to raise prices in order to fund this — and would still need flexibility from the government on immigration to survive the transition, he said. 

Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the BPC, said the government risked creating a “two-tier food system”, with imported food produced to lower standards and British produce available only for the affluent.

But Allen said the industry was running out of options to address the staffing crunch. “If I’m very honest about it, we’re reaching a point of despair, we just seem to be heading towards a brick wall,” he said.

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